When You See Yourself in Your Grandkids

A grandson's familiar tantrum inspires this grandmother to help

By Jo Ann Miller

He notices it the minute he walks into my apartment. "Where's the table? What happened to it?"

My 9-year-old grandson, Elias, hurls his backpack to the floor and kicks off his sneakers. His eyebrows slant down in a whimpering frown and his bottom lip curls up. "How can I do my homework without a table?" he wails.

Elias comes to our house after school every Wednesday, along with his 7-year-old sister, Hazel. Sometimes I read to them — books like James and the Giant Peach and Charlotte's Web — even though they can read them as well as I can. Sometimes we play Crazy Eights or Rummikub. It's quality time with Grandma Jo and Grandpa Lou.

But on this Wednesday, our dining room table is missing because we've bought a new one, which won't arrive until tomorrow. My suggestion to Elias that he use my desk or the floor for his homework is greeted with screams of protest, which soon escalate into a full-blown tantrum. Hazel quickly flees to the TV room. 

"What is the homework?" I venture. "Maybe I can help. We'll sit together and ..."

Elias cuts me off and launches into a teary diatribe. "You don't know what the teacher wants! You can't help!" he shouts, flinging his notebook onto the couch and throwing his pencil across the room. "You never understand! You're mean! You're always mean!"

Flashing Back

Suddenly, I flash back to my childhood. "Why won't you ever listen?" I would shout at my mother. "You're so mean! You don't understand!" The same words. The same trembling fury. The same tears.

I glance over at Elias, now curled up on the couch, weeping quietly. His chest is heaving. He wipes his runny nose on his sleeve. I'm guessing that he wants to do his homework, and he's feeling helpless and scared that it will be too hard.

At this point in my own tantrums, my mother would say to my father, "I think the storm is ending, Daddy." Or worse, "Grumpy from the Seven Dwarfs was visiting us today, Daddy." This would throw me into spasms of rage.

So I understand Elias's fear, and I'm determined to help him beat it. I sit down close to him on the couch. He edges away. I wait. Finally he tells me that the report he has to write is about New York State. He is supposed to describe places he's seen and tell which ones he likes best. A piece of cake.

But not for Elias. "I don't know what I like ... I won't know what to say ... and a whole page, I can't fill it...."

Helping Him Through

Familiar language: don't, won't, can't. My former therapist insisted that when I used words like that I was having a tantrum.

Elias, still weeping and sniffling, says plaintively, "I don't know how to start."

And then I ask, "How about I give you a first sentence?"


"That's definitely not allowed," he answers, his voice rising.

"Okay. We'll use my first sentence just to get you started. You can change it later."

Elias looks at me quizzically; he's not sure what to make of this idea. I take his notebook and write: "There are many things I like about New York State." I hand the notebook and pencil back to him.

He stops crying and wipes his face with the tissue I give him. Within ten minutes he produces a perfectly acceptable report. Turns out he likes New York City best, especially the American Museum of Natural History. Grandpa Steve and Grandma Karen's house finishes a close second. The report is a page-and-a-half long. He keeps my first sentence.

I can barely contain my happiness. I throw an arm around Elias and pour him a glass of apple juice. As he takes a sip, he turns to me. "That's the way it always is with me," he remarks matter-of-factly. "First the tantrum, then the work."

I howl with laughter. "I know just what you mean," I tell him. And we give each other a high-five. "Wouldn't it be nice," I say, "if we could just skip the tantrum and get right to the work?"

Elias shrugs, manages a half-smile, and runs off to watch TV with his sister, leaving me chuckling in the kitchen.


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